The rules on impartiality in broadcasting have never been more muddled, and public trust is being seriously undermined.
The fault for this lies at the doors of the BBC’s bungling managers, the rich media entrepreneurs who are now deliberately testing the parameters of bias in news and a media regulator palpably failing to keep pace with a fast-changing sector.
When Tim Davie arrived as director-general of the BBC in 2020, he promised to make the impartiality of the organisation his “first policy objective”. Weeks later, the BBC published guidelines on staff use of social media.
Now those rules, vague in respect of high-profile freelance presenters, are under “review” – a classic BBC crisis response mechanism.
The latest Gary Lineker furore, and a related BBC trust breakdown that affected star presenters Fiona Bruce and Sir David Attenborough, has been a gift to the BBC’s enemies and a source of despair for licence fee payers and staff.
Suspending Lineker over a tweet in support of asylum seekers, and then promptly reinstating him after BBC Sport presenters downed microphones in solidarity with the Match of the Day host, was an excruciating display of inept leadership that caused anger across the political spectrum.
Yes, the BBC rightly stood by Question Time presenter Bruce and her legally-obligated comment on domestic violence allegations against Stanley Johnson, but the insensitive wording of her “it was a one-off” caveat should be subjected to inquest by the producers who pre-scripted it.
As for the claim that the BBC “cancelled” Attenborough because a film about failing biodiversity (backed by the RSPB and WWF) is on iPlayer but not included in BBC One series Wild Isles – I think it’s a non-story. Yet BBC trust levels are so low that many ignore its protestations that the natural historian was not shut down.
Much of this debate on impartiality in television is being conducted on Twitter. In this frenzied environment, bias is called out – justifiably or falsely – from left, right and centre.
Stepping back from that angry platform, we might reflect that the BBC has a long history of impartiality rows but learns little from it. Andrew Gilligan’s 2003 comment that the government “sexed up” a dossier on Iraqi weapons almost eviscerated the organisation. Question Time’s idea of balance and free speech led to British National Party leader Nick Griffin sitting on its panel. BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty (inset) was reprimanded for criticising Donald Trump for racism, then cleared when backtracking former D-G Lord Hall declared: “Racism is racism and the BBC is not impartial on the topic.”
Lineker thought his arrangement allowed him to take a similar stance on showing sympathy to people fleeing war and persecution.
Andrew Marr believes the BBC faces a hopeless task in policing the values of everyone on its roster. Marr is part of a BBC talent drain, which includes his colleague Emily Maitlis who left the BBC after being reprimanded in another storm over supposed bias.
“Are we going to censor the views of Mary Berry, Claudia Winkleman, Nigella Lawson and David Tennant?” Marr asked his LBC listeners. “Is there a danger that the Hairy Bikers have dissident views on corporation tax, or that Sarah Lancashire might start tweeting about levelling up?”
Marr argues that Lineker, as a sports presenter, “isn’t the face of the BBC”, even if he earns £1.35m from the broadcaster. On that point, we might remember that Jeremy Clarkson was earning £14m from Top Gear and Jonathan Ross had a salary of £6m. Both were reprimanded for bad language and later fired. Both have been successful outside the BBC.
Lineker is back on Match of the Day. But as the BBC self-harms in this latest quest for impartiality, its new rivals are seeking to shift the Overton window on what passes as “fair coverage” of news and current affairs on British television. Channels such as GB News and TalkTV are testing boundaries on bias by employing serving Conservative MPs as presenters. Ofcom is struggling to keep up.
Ahead of last week’s Budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was interviewed on GB News by husband-and-wife presenting team Esther McVey and Philip Davies, both Tory MPs.
John Nicolson, SNP MP and former ITV news anchor, was horrified. “Ofcom rules are clear. MPs are not allowed to act as newsreaders or interviewers on UK television stations,” he says.
On Tuesday, he was able to question Melanie Dawes, the regulator’s chief executive, when she appeared before a parliamentary committee.
Her floundering response over “what constitutes a news programme” left him unimpressed. “Eventually she promised to get back to me to tell me how and when she’ll address the apparent breach of her own rules.”
Meanwhile, the viewing public looks on in confusion and dismay.